Parenting

A Lesson in Family Identity After a Boy is Sent Home From School for His Mohawk

Native American family

It’s not hard to imagine a little boy sitting in the principal’s office. It’s commonplace, right? The chair is too big, so his knees and feet stretch out in front of him; he entertains himself quietly by keeping his feet in constant motion. With his hands on his knees and his head down, he waits for the door to open and his judge, jury and executioner to invite him into the office.

Yeah, it’s a common scene.

In those early years of grade school, getting kicked out of class was a sure sign you did something wrong. You were ejected and rejected by the adults and peers that replaced your family for most of the day. The purpose behind the expulsion was to change your behavior so when you came back, you would not disrupt the learning environment — you would conform and learn to fit in.

But what if you didn’t do anything wrong? What if you were sent there entirely because of the color of your skin? Your last name? Or the way you wore your hair? What if your appearance alone was disrupting the class. That sounds unlikely in today’s enlightened and tolerant world, doesn’t it?

Second-grader Jakobe Sanden was kicked out of his classroom at Arrowhead Elementary School for sporting a new haircut; a mohawk to be exact. Jakobe’s parents were called and informed that their son’s hair violated the school’s policy, and were instructed to come to the school, retrieve the boy and change his hair.

According to news reports, the administration cited school policy, but the school’s online handbook does not regulate hair styles or length. Not so long ago, schools strictly enforced the length of hair and imposed dress codes, but in this case, the policy uses ambiguous terms like “extremes” in regulating body piercings, hairstyles and hair colors that “may be considered” disruptive or seen as a distraction.

The visual that comes to mind is an ’80s punk, or perhaps the lady that works at our local super store with her hair buzzed around her ears and the rest dyed jet black, standing eight inches high and glued in place like a Spartan’s helmet. Every inch of her body is covered in tattoos, except her face —  save for the piercings.

But that’s not what this little boy had. He is a second-grader with a mohawk which suits him perfectly.

Jakobe’s father is a member of the Seneca Nation of Indians, and his mother belongs to the Kaibab Band of Paiute Indians, but according to the school, there were students that “weren’t used to [the mohawk],” so the teacher brought the situation and the little boy to the principal’s attention.

A Seneca Nation councillor sent a letter to the superintendent stating that it is common for Seneca boys to wear mohawks. He went on to school the administrator by writing, “because, after years of discrimination and oppression, they are proud to share who they are.”

“Proud to share who they are.” Are your kids proud to share who they are? The family they come from?

This story really struck a chord with me on a couple of levels. First, of course, this boy should not have been made to go to the principal’s office for his hairstyle — he is in second grade, for heaven’s sake. For any child that age, the style of his hair has more to do with his parents than it does with him.

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Beyond that, it reminded me of just how important it is for us all to give our children a family heritage. These parents were obviously trying to do just that: instill in their son a sense of his heritage. What sets him apart is also what makes him belong. You don’t have to come from a Native American tribe to give your child a sense of family heritage.

Too many parents have relinquished a large part of their children’s identities to the schools they attend. We’ve all done it to one extent or another. We take on the names of the sports teams or a school as part of our personal identity; I’m a Bulldog, or I’m a Warrior. Later on in life, that translates into career or job choices. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just that it is too easy to allow it to claim too much of who we are.

I’ve met more than one young man who felt lost after high school because he was no longer part of the team whose name he wore during most of his teenage years. His accomplishments on the field and the victories he shared with his class and teammates defined a large part of his identity.

It’s possible to give our children a rich identity and develop a strong family culture that will stay with them throughout their childhood and into their adult years. It doesn’t have to be centered around ethnicity or race; it can be more about moral qualities, character traits or talents.

In the Robinson house, we talk a lot about creativity, adventures, and risk taking. Ideas are valued and bantered around freely. When one of the children exhibits an artistic flair or expresses creative thoughts, we point these out as Robinson family traits.

Blue eyes, dishwater blondes, and overbites are the visual clues that you could be talking to a Robinson, but being a headstrong, opinionated, creative visual artist with a spark of tenacity is as much of a common birthmark for Robinson children as the color of their eyes.

As they’ve grown, they’ve noticed this about themselves. Each of my children has also seen one or more of these traits in their own children, and they point it out with pride in who they are, passing on a sense of belonging to another generation.

Schools are cookie-cutter factories. Families are where the individual is nurtured, and every family has its own distinct traits. Point these differences out to your children and celebrate your family’s gift of uniqueness. It will give them a sense of identity and pride in who they are. What makes them different also makes them belong.